If you aren’t following Robert Minto’s blog you’re missing some thought-provoking posts on the essence of criticism and blogging. I’ve been contemplating his On Apophatic Criticism post, which scrutinises, in part, Stephen Mitchelmore’s approach to criticism on my favourite book blog This Space.
Minto also categorises criticism into five varieties. I’m not sure how he would classify my writing about books, “book chat” perhaps; like astrology, I see elements of what I attempt in a number of his categories.
My interest in literature, and art in general, is shaped by curiosity about how others perceive or know the world. How do others perceive some thing (abstract or material) as a distinct object of perception, and how does this compare with my understanding. Kant says we don’t perceive things in themselves: “What may be the case with objects in themselves and abstracted from all this receptivity of our sensibility remains entirely unknown to us. We are acquainted with nothing except our way of perceiving them.” I’ve never quite understood why everyone isn’t as haunted with this suggestion as I am. Perhaps they are, but don’t feel a need to create a blog to babble on about it. As a consequence, I’m naturally intrigued with literature as literary object, about words, sentences, form and so on, but from a conviction that literature engenders an imaginative perceiving that is transformative, for a time at least, of the world before us. To read literature with sympathy, intuition, intelligence, comprehension and grace enriches perception and deepens our interpretive function.
Reading Lampedusa’s The Leopard this week, in which Greuze’s painting is given a structural and thematic role depicting the twin themes of decadence and sexual indulgence in the context of the story’s overarching theme of death. The painting leads into the beautiful final chapters, ‘Death of a Prince’ and ‘Relics’ in which Fabrizio determines that he has truly lived only two or three years of his life–all else was just boredom and pain. The painting reinforces Lampedusa’s autobiographical story about the social decline of his noble family into the middle classes.
If a reading of The Leopard begins with a sense of the book’s seductive prose and its inherent melancholy, where does the transition happen from a perception of the book as a work of literature to a transformative experience? What happens when we interrupt “normal’ life to occupy ourselves with something that isn’t of our life but enriches it in an unexpected way, giving it, if one is lucky, a new, deeply felt meaning? Exploring these questions are what compels me to read and to write about that experience on this blog.
More and more I think we’re back in the eighteenth century and that blogs are like those essay pamphlets that circulated in literary London at the time – the original Spectator, for instance. Such writing gave rise to the birth of the novel as a form. Will blogs likewise bring forth something new?
I think blogging has offered up a new form, one of immediacy, in the nature of an unedited first draft, raw and genuine. I like your analogy, another might be to the zines of the late 1970s.
Your description of your interest as a reader and blogger describes a fascinating version, it seems to me, of the apophatic interest in literature, because of your Kantian focus on the inaccessibility of the object in itself to perception; that inaccessibility marks, after all, one of the limits of writing. Also, regardless of my silly typology, this is an excellent blog, and I’ve enjoyed your twitter hiatus insofar as it has lead to more posting from you! Seems in a lot of corners that something of the activity and interaction of the old circa 2007 “blogosphere” is, for some reason, flickering back to life. Perhaps our collective disillusionment with social media, the blog-killer?
I’d depart from Twitter with a whoop and a chirrup if I thought that doing so heralded a return to the best days of the blogosphere (ugly word but useful shortcut). My abstention from Twitter has marked a period during which I read more and thought more deeply about what I read.
Nothing to add, just saying that this is a wonderful post.
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I’m very pleased to have discovered your blog, Anthony. I had a brief stint on Twitter some time ago and found it frenetic, and a bit abrasive. What you say about literature engendering an imaginative perceiving is of great interest to me – you identify what I believe books are really for – if they are to have any purpose. I often wonder if our psyche makes much distinction between the realities we encounter on the page and the one we personally sustain, day after day. I rather hope not! Many thanks.
Thank you, Claire. I’m also pleased that you discovered my blog. I’m not terribly interested in Twitter, though keeping an eye on a handful of writers and thinkers whose opinions I value.
I agree completely that seeing through others’ eyes and sensibilities through the device of literature changes markedly the way we perceive the world.
I’m not sure if you spotted the Schwarzenbach quote I posted, which seems to me to apply to literature as well:
“Perhaps my sense of reality is not very highly developed, perhaps I lack a sound and reassuring instinct for the solid facts of our earthly existence; I can’t always tell memories from dreams, and often mistake dreams, coming to life again in colours, smells, sudden associations, with the eerie secret certainty of a past life from which time and space divide me no differently and not better than a light sleep in the early hours.”
Oh, wow, that really resonates! I have been thinking about dreams very much lately – I’ve been using them in my writing, it’s very freeing. The narrator in Javier Marias’s book A Man of Feeling expresses a rather original position on them – and there are a few lines that really intrigue me; ‘I once read in a book by a German writer that people who chose not to eat breakfast are trying to avoid contact with the day so as not to enter fully into it because it is only through the second awakening, that of the stomach, that you can entirely leave behind you the darkness and the nocturnal realm….’ I do prefer writing on an empty stomach – maybe this is why! – but who is the German writer, and what is the book?? So infuriating! Do you think Thomas Mann would say something like that?
I’d be willing to bet that Thomas Mann liked a good breakfast to start his day. It sounds like the kind of thing that Michael Hofmann would write, or perhaps more likely Gottfried Benn (who Hofmann has translated), whose poems have a nocturnal texture. I never retain my dreams for long enough, and hadn’t thought breakfast might be the cause of this. Do you write down your dreams? I am so intrigued by how you use them in your work.
I tend to think Kant is erroneous—we have senses and things are sensible. But when it comes to the mind of another, we have no direct access. This is where words become useful.
Useful in a way. Fiction gives a sense that we are accessing another mind. I’m not at all certain that we have very much direct or privileged access to our own mind, let alone that of another.